Controversy surrounds Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnoses

Posted at 10:45 PM, Sep 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-17 14:49:01-04

FARMINGTON, Utah -- Every year, approximately 1,200 cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome are reported around the country, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But in recent years, the diagnoses has been met with skepticism. Some in the medical community contend its symptoms also match other types of injuries, ones that don’t necessarily stem from abuse.

“Shaken Baby Syndrome has become very controversial in the legal field,” said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law professor at the University of Utah.

The dispute has led to complications in the courtroom, according to Byrne Hessick, whose research is focused on criminal law and sentencing.

“There’s no doubt that child abuse is a real problem in this country,” Hessick explained. “But it’s also pretty clear, however, the experts who were originally being advised, they’ve since come to the conclusion that there’s a lot more at play here than originally thought.”

In March, the Washington Post released a study done in conjunction with the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University. They analyzed approximately 1,800 Shaken Baby Syndrome cases.

Since 2001, they found the majority -- about 1,600 -- ended with a conviction. However, they also found that more than 200 ended with drop or dismissed charges, a not guilty verdict and overturned convictions.

“I think it’s sort of an unfair characterization,” said Ryan Steinbeigle, Executive Director of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The center in Farmington was established in 2000, as SBS was just starting to gain national attention.  Since then, Steinbeigle said there has always been a consensus on SBS within the medical community and that has not changed.

“You have a fringe group of individuals, who almost exclusively testifies in cases for the defense, claiming alternative hypothesis and theories to explain injuries seen in children,” explained Steinbeigle. “On the other side of this you have 3,000-4,000 pediatricians, radiologists, those who are actually seeing and treating these children.”

But while the majority may agree, even a smaller disagreement poses a problem as these cases go to court.

“The outcome in a trial is only as good as the evidence that goes into it,” Hessick said. “If the medical community can’t agree on what the medical evidence is, I’m not sure how you’d necessarily expect a jury to.”